Film Stuff

Day 22: Catch-22 (1970)

Released at the same time as M*A*S*H in 1970, Catch-22 suffered in comparison with Robert Altman’s radical war satire, which heralded a new and uncompromising method of film-making. According to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), even the director, Mike Nichols admitted as such: “We were waylaid by M*A*S*H, which was much fresher and more alive, improvisational, and funnier than Catch-22…It just cut us off at the knees”. Following trumping his rival at the box office, Robert Altman put up a sign in his office saying: “Caught-22”.

I’m not going to argue with the box office (and I haven’t seen M*A*S*H, so I can’t comment), but Catch-22 doesn’t have the hallmarks of a flop. It’s a sharp, smart, jet black comedy pillorying the absurdity of war. The central conundrum of Catch-22 roughly equates to the following:

if you’re mad, you’re automatically grounded, but in order to be certified mad, you have to request to be grounded. If you request to be grounded, you’re obviously not mad because no one in their right minds would want to be flying.

This gives the generals free reign to keep upping the number of missions, going well beyond anyone’s levels of tolerance, and, ultimately, sanity. The fissures are there from the outset, from Alan Arkin’s cynical Bombadier, Yossarian, to Jon Voight’s entrepreneurial mess officer and Bob Balaban’s serial plane crasher. Major Danby reads out mission briefings like it’s a weather forecast, and the doctor comes to terms with his own mortality as he’s wiped from the records after being reported killed. It’s every man for himself and no one has a clue what the hell’s going on. The bureaucratical fatcats, led by Martin Balsam and Orson Welles, respond to the crises by promoting people because of their name (Captain Major henceforth known as Major Major), and dispensing medals to cover up a monumental cock-up over Italy.

Amongst all this insanity, there’s a recurring dream-like sequence of the Bombardier going to the aid of a rear plane-gunner who’s so new he doesn’t even know his name. It’s a rare quiet period amidst the chaos, the scene gradually extending each time we see it, until the final, horrific, revelation. By this time, it’s all gone to pot. The small group of friends has been fractured beyond repair, with the one ray of hope lying with the crazy Balaban, whose propensity at ditching his plane in the ocean hides a cunning and thoroughly rational plan.

I love the Theatre of the Absurd and I reckon Catch-22 is the closest you’ll get to it in film terms. The characters are cogs in the machine, representations and exaggerations of human traits, rather than rounded characters in their own right. Jon Voight’s Milo is the epitome of the cash-grabbing capitalist whose economic structure takes precedence over the lives of the men he’s supposed to be supporting. It’s a world view that’s as bleak as 1984but retains a small spark  of individuality and hope as Yossarian strikes out for freedom. It’s cleverly written, very funny, and forty years on, deserves to be appreciated as a film in its own right.

Incidentally, does anyone else get confused between Martin Balsam and Ernest Borgnine? No? Just me then.

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Film Stuff

Day 18: 18 Again! (1988)

I’m beginning to run out of options on the numbers front. So today, I was lumbered with an 80s body swap comedy starring  the drippy bloke from Diagnosis Murder.

Unexpectedly, I quite enjoyed it.

Released in the same year as Big, the film probably suffers from not starring Tom Hanks. I certainly hadn’t heard of it before and it seems to have slipped through the cracks as one of the multitude of teen comedies churned out every year. There was nothing particularly memorable about it, but it was a pleasant way of passing the time.

Freshman David Watson (Charlie Schlatter) is a bit of a dweeb. He is bullied by the resident jocks into doing their homework, and is fairly useless on the running track. He hangs out with his gay best friend (he wears an earring!), painting murals in his spare time. Back at home, his grandfather Jack (George Burns) is celebrating his 81st birthday. Jack is a successful businessman enjoying the fruits of his many accomplishments. The only thing lacking is a return to his youth. After a birthday wish and a stopover in an old-fashioned diner, grandfather and grandson are both injured in a car crash, with Jack waking up in David’s body. With a twinkle in his eye, a tweed suit and a copious amount of cigars, Jack proceeds to revolutionise David’s life. Whether it’s qualifying for the race, getting the girl or telling the jocks where to go, age and wisdom has the answer to everything. But when Jack’s gold-digging girlfriend threatens to inherit, he faces a race against time to swap back to his real self.

It’s very 80s – the mullets are something to behold. And you get the impression that Charlie Schlatter was only cast because he a) has passing resemblance to Michael J Fox and b) was a short-arse who could pass for 18. He does a good job initially of portraying the distinction between the two characters, but the winks and grimaces and arthritic body language soon wears thin as he mistakes caricature for charisma. There are some funny one-liners, chiefly stemming from George Burns’ charming old buffer, and it all ticks along rather nicely. The final race has the body swap reversed and the unwitting youngster pitted against his arch rival for a small matter of a thousand dollars that his grandfather bet on a poker game. It’s captured in true, Chariots of Fire-style, sinew-straining slo mo, with a hefty side order of cheese.

It’s hilariously bad, but so good-natured that it’s almost forgivable.